Their aim was to measure all human knowledge by the standard of biblical truth and values.

T. s. eliot once observed that “we must derive our theory of education from our philosophy of life. The problem turns out to be a religious problem.” There has never been a better example of education growing out of a philosophy of life than the one provided by the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Though not always credited with an enthusiasm for learning, the Puritans were among history’s staunchest champions of education. No other English-speaking colonizers established higher education as soon as did the Puritans after their arrival in Massachusetts Bay. Already in 1636 the General Court voted four hundred pounds “towards a school or college.” Thus established, Harvard College was kept alive during its early years partly through the sacrifice of farmers, who contributed wheat to support teachers and students.

This concern for education was carried to America from the European Reformation. Calvin established a flourishing university in Geneva, and Luther appealed to the magistrates of Germany to insure universal public education. In England the number of grammar schools doubled while the Puritans were in their ascendancy.

Such actions merely demonstrate that the Puritans practiced what they preached, and were rooted in the thinking of the Reformers on the Continent. Luther’s opinion, for example, was that “you parents cannot prepare a more dependable treasure for your children than an education in the liberal arts” (Table Talk).

In America, the document New England’s First Fruits (1643) begins, “After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the Civil government: one of the next things we longed for, and looked after, was to advance learning and perpetuate it to Posterity.” Cotton Mather called that act “the best thing that ever New-England thought upon,” adding that the Puritans “were willing to let the richer colonies, which retained the ways of the Church of England, see ‘how much true religion was a friend unto good literature’ ” (Magnalia Christi Americana).

Puritan views on education are among the greatest of all their legacies. Only to our own detriment can we ignore what they said on the topic.

The ideal of an educated Christian mind has always needed defense against anti-intellectual forces within the Christian church. In the seventeenth century, radical Protestants known in England as sectaries and in America as antinomians kept up a running attack against Puritans and others who extolled the value of education and the importance of human reason. “I had rather hear such a one that speaks from the mere motion of the spirit, without any study at all, than any of your learned scholars, although he may be fuller of Scripture,” declared an antinomian in the hearing of Captain Johnson.

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The Puritans consistently defended the cause of learning against such attacks upon the mind. The English Puritan Richard Baxter believed that “education is God’s ordinary way for the conveyance of his grace, and ought no more to be set in opposition to the Spirit than the preaching of the Word.” John Cotton claimed that although “knowledge is no knowledge without zeal,” yet “zeal is but a wild-fire without knowledge.” “Faith is grounded upon knowledge,” said Samuel Willard, and “for this reason it is said that without knowledge the mind of man cannot be good, and that a people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.”

Neither did the Puritans’ faith in the Bible’s authority lead them to believe human reason was unimportant. Harvard’s first college laws required not only that students be able to read the Scriptures, but also “to Resolve them Logically.” A hint of what this entailed is suggested by Baxter’s description of instances when a Christian must use reason: “We must use our best Reason … to know which are the true Canonical Scriptures …, to expound the text, to Translate truly …, to gather just and certain inferences from Scripture assertions; to apply general rules to particular Cases, in matters of Doctrine, Worship, Discipline, and Ordinary Practice.”

To say the Puritans treasured an educated mind is not to imply they found that ideal easy to attain. The obstacles to it were the same then as now: mental laziness, the complacency of ignorance, the pressures of time, and the temptation to amass money instead of paying for an education. Puritan leaders, at least, valued an educated mind over material riches. Cotton Mather admonished his congregation with the comment, “If your main concern be to get the Riches of this World unto them, it looks very suspiciously, as if you were yourselves the People of this World, whose Portion is only in this life” (“What the Pious Parent Wishes”).

John Milton paid this moving tribute to his father as he neared the completion of his education: “For, father, you did not enjoin me to go where the broad way lies open, where money slides more easily into the hand, and the golden hope of piling up wealth shines bright and sure …, desiring rather that my mind should be cultivated and enriched.… What greater wealth could a father have given …, though he had given all things except heaven?” (“To My Father”).

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Setting the right priority of values has been the hidden agenda for every generation of Christians. In a day of relatively modest material means, many Puritans showed by their actions that they valued learning above possessions. Christians in our affluent Western culture today have not always risen as high.

The Christian Goal of Education

Albert Einstein once remarked that we live in a day of perfect means and confused goals. Such a charge cannot be laid at the door of the Puritans. The strength of their educational theory was that they knew what education was for: their primary goal was Christian growth.

The statutes of Emmanuel College, perhaps most Puritan of Cambridge University colleges, stated, “There are three things which above all we desire all the Fellows of this College to attend to, to wit the worship of God, the increase of the faith, and probity of morals.”

American Puritans voiced the same goals. The immediate occasion of the founding of Harvard was the Puritan determination not “to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust” (New England’s First Fruits). One rule observed in the college was: “Let every student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.” One of the most famous education acts ever passed in America, in establishing free public education in Massachusetts (1647), gave as the reason for wanting a literate public the wish to foil a “chief project of ye old deluder Satan to keep men from the knowledge of ye Scriptures.”

It is obvious the Puritans would be shocked by secular education devoid of religious purpose. In their view, such an education would lack the most essential ingredient. “For we certainly want to provide not only for our children’s bellies,” wrote Luther, “but for their souls as well. At least this is what truly Christian parents would say about it” (letter to the Councilmen of Germany). Calvin wrote that “a knowledge of all the sciences is mere smoke, where the heavenly science of Christ is wanting” (commentary on 1 Cor. 1:20).

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Given this religious conception of education, the Puritans naturally made the study of the Bible and Christian doctrine central in their curriculum. The practice can be traced right back to Luther, who wrote, “Above, all, the foremost reading for everybody, both in the universities and in the schools, should be Holy Scripture.… I would advise no one to send his child where the Holy Scriptures are not supreme.” At Harvard the rule was that “every one shall so exercise himself in reading the Scriptures twice a day, that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein … as his Tutor shall require, … seeing the entrance of the word giveth light.”

The Puritans’ aim in the classroom was to measure all human knowledge by the standard of biblical truth. Although Milton’s proposed curriculum contains both classical and Christian readings, the works of writers like Plato and Plutarch are subjected finally to “the determinate sentence of David or Solomon, or the evangels and apostolic scriptures” (Of Education). Thomas Hall wrote that “we must … bring humane learning home to Divinity, to be pruned and pared with spiritual wisdom.” The integration of faith and learning one hears so much about in Christian education today is not new. It is an ideal with a distinguished ancestry, partly Puritan, and one can only regret that it has so rarely been strongly practiced in the intervening centuries.

The classic statement of the Christian goal of education appears in Milton’s famous definition of education: “The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him” (Of Education). Milton defines education in terms of what it accomplishes. There may be many ways to achieve a Christian education—but in the meantime we had better not lose sight of what it is. In Milton’s view, education is not what people so often reduce it to: completing a certain number of courses, writing the requisite number of papers, “getting a requirement out of the way,” or acquiring a degree (though perhaps not an education). Milton the educator is less interested in how much a person knows than in the kind of person he or she is in the process of becoming.

In Milton’s definition, the goal of education focuses on a person’s relationship to God. Properly conducted, a person’s education makes him or her a better Christian. Milton even describes education as a process of sanctification when he writes that the aim is “to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.” We customarily limit sanctification to moral and spiritual progress, but surely becoming like God means coming to share God’s love of truth and beauty as well as his holiness.

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The Puritans kept the religious goal of education clearly in view. Our modern tendency is to wonder how they dared to think so optimistically about the ability of education to mold a Christian character. I suspect the Puritans would wonder how our century has dared to expect so much less than that from education.

A Complete and Generous Education

The Puritan emphasis on the Christian element in education will surprise no one. But that emphasis is only half the picture; the other half is not so well known. While the aim of Puritan education was religious, its content was established to provide an educated clergy; the resulting institution was neither a Bible school nor a seminary but a college.

This concern for a broad education in all subjects can be traced back to the early Reformers. “If I had children and could manage it,” Luther wrote to the Councilmen of Germany, “I would have them study not only languages and history, but also singing and music together with the whole of mathematics.” Luther observed that, “The ancient Greeks trained their children in these disciplines,” and “they grew up to be people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything.” “Fit for everything” has always been the goal of liberal arts education, as distinct from vocational training.

For Protestants such as Luther, no education was complete if it included only religious knowledge. Philip Melanchthon put the case succinctly: “For some teach absolutely nothing out of the Sacred Scriptures; some teach the children absolutely nothing but the Sacred Scriptures; both of which are not to be tolerated.”

Although the aim of education in Calvin’s university was religious, the content of the curriculum was broad. Of 27 weekly lectures, 3 were in theology, 8 in Hebrew and the Old Testament, 3 in ethics, 5 in Greek orators and poets, 3 in physics and mathematics, and 5 in dialectic and rhetoric. Twenty years before the founding of the university, Calvin expressed the view that “the Word of God indeed is the foundation of all learning, but the liberal arts are aids to the full knowledge of the Word and are not to be despised.”

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We might expect that as the early American settlers struggled with the wilderness for their survival they would have been totally indifferent to the liberal arts, but the reverse is true. Cotton Mather praised president Charles Chauncy of Harvard for “how constantly he expounded the Scriptures to them in the College Hall” and “how learnedly he … conveyed all the liberal arts unto those that sat at his feet.” The ministerial students at Harvard not only learned to read the Bible in its original languages and to expound its theology, they also studied mathematics, astronomy, physics, botany, chemistry, philosophy, history, and medicine.

The Puritan ideal was a comprehensive study of human knowledge in all its branches within a context of biblical revelation. Such an integration of human knowledge with the Bible is captured in a Harvard thesis of 1670 that describes the seven liberal arts as “a circle of seven sections of which the center is God.”

Since all truth is God’s truth, it is ultimately one. The Puritans thus had a foundation for seeing the interrelatedness of all academic subjects that makes modern versions of interdisciplinary courses look superficial. Samuel Mather commented that “all the arts are nothing else but the beams and rays of the Wisdom of the first Being in the Creatures, shining, and reflecting thence, upon the glass of man’s understanding; and as from Him they come, so to Him they tend. Hence there is an affinity and kindred of Arts. One makes use of another, one serves to another, till they all reach and return to Him.”

In sum, the Puritan ideal in learning was liberal arts education; its goal was a capable and qualified person. No statement of that ideal can rival Milton’s: “I call therefore a complete and generous education that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully, and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war” (Of Education).

The heart of Milton’s definition is that a complete education is one that frees a person to perform “all the offices, both private and public.” A liberal education is comprehensive. It prepares a person to do well all that he or she may be called to do in life. Learning a certain amount of information will not by itself constitute a liberal education; such knowledge becomes worthwhile only as it is instrumental in forming a qualified person. The effects of a good education, according to Milton, are twofold: they influence people in their personal lives and make them productive members of society.

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Education in our day has been obsessed with a single public role, that of job or vocation, which it has tended to define in economic terms. Milton’s phrase “public offices” covers more than that, however; it includes being a good church member and a positive contributor to the community.

And what are the “private offices” that Milton mentions? They include being a good friend, roommate, spouse, or parent, and they include the most personal world of all—the inner world of the mind and imagination. One of the best tests of whether a person is truly educated is what he or she does with leisure time. The extent to which education in our century has failed is obvious in the cultural malaise (especially evident in leisure pursuits) that Paul Elmen analyzes in The Restoration of Meaning to Contemporary Life: boredom, the search for distraction, the fear of spending time by oneself, sensuality, escape into comedy, violence, and the appeal of horror (“the fun of being frightened”).

If Milton and the Puritan tradition within which he wrote were right, we should not ask first of all, “What can I do with a Christian liberal arts education?” but rather, “What can a Christian liberal arts education do with and for me as a person?”

Education Today

It would be a mistake to think that Puritan ideals of education are important only to people who support Christian education as opposed to public education. Surely Christians should not disagree on the goals of education. No Christian parent or student or educator should want anything less than the development of the soul, as well as the mind, of every student.

When compared to the Puritan perspective, public education in our century is a scandal of low expectations. Whereas Milton and his age were thinking in terms of becoming like God and preparing to do all tasks well, modern secular education has waived the spiritual and (in large part) moral goals and settled for imparting mental data. Christians who for philosophic or financial reasons have not supported Christian education have been entirely too ready to assess secular education on its own terms, not realizing that the premises themselves are faulty. Many Christians act as though there is no cause for alarm in public education.

According to the Puritans, there is much to be alarmed about. Instead of an education in which the school reinforces the family and church and every discipline is integrated with a Christian viewpoint, secular education is producing intellectually split personalities in which school and intellect rarely intersect with Christian values in home and church. The two sets of data often sit side by side without ever merging.

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The Puritan theory of education also stands as a corrective to many practices in Christian education today. It has never been easier for parents to support Christian education for the wrong reasons. Christian parents look at declining academic standards, lack of discipline, drug abuse, promiscuity, unchristian influence of teachers and peers, and the sociologists’ practice of using schools to conduct social experiments, and it is understandable that they want an alternative. Yet truly Christian education (as distinct from merely private education) has never flourished when it has been no more than an opposition to public education. The only adequate foundation for Christian education is what the Puritans stood for: an aggressive pursuit of the goals of producing a well-rounded Christian character and of relating biblical truth to every area of life.

Puritan education also opposes the narrowness of much Christian education today. A graduate of a prestigious Bible college recently maintained under cross-examination that he had never heard of John Milton. There are Christian schools where readings in English courses consist solely of missionary biographies.

For the Puritans, an adequate education was more than a knowledge of the Bible and Christian doctrine. A complete education was one that related all of life to the Christian faith. The Puritans were right. I have sat in church services in which everything that was said was true and biblical, but in which there were no “windows” beyond the walls of the church to the issues of everyday life. The “real world” is here to stay until Christ returns; no education, no matter how religious, is an adequate preparation if it fails to teach a person how to live Christianly in society.

The goal of Puritan education was the formation of a complete and capable person, grounded in the Bible, and able to operate in all areas of life in the light of the Christian faith. The educational aim was not a withdrawal from society but a penetration of it with Christian principles. Both Christian and public education in our own day have much to learn from their example.

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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